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Pin Valley National Park
With its sub-zero temperatures and semi-frozen rivers, Pin Valley is the only cold desert National Park located in Himachal Pradesh. The park lies in the valley of the Pin river, from where it derives its name. Spreading south of Dhankar in the Spiti district near the Tibetan border, the reserve forms a natural interface between the Lahaul and Spiti divisions of the state. It was set up to protect and preserve the rare and unique Himalayan flora and fauna. Vast and sparsely populated, Pin Valley is home to 'the grey ghost of the Himalayas', the snow leopard, and its prey, the ibex. Set against a back-drop of awe-inspiring icy mountain ranges, Pin Valley is snowed in for a good part of the year and a trek to this fascinating country should only be attempted by the spirited, adventurous and fit. The region is also under strong religious influence with some very famous Buddhist monasteries or gompas located here.
The climate is dry with freezing, high-velocity winds and minimal rainfall. Winter sets in early and temperatures can drop to as low as -350C. Heavy snowfall makes it risky to visit the park from late December to March. The summer season lasts from late May to September when temperatures reach a maximum of 250C, though the nights may still be freezing. July to October is when the park is accessible. The month of August is the 'best time' to visit Pin Valley, when the temperatures are most hospitable, at least during the day! Botanists and zoologists would also find July-August exciting.
This is mainly land for trekking and camping hence traditional accommodation is limited. Bunkers provided by the Forest Department are another option. The Buddhist monks are very hospitable and could invite travellers to a cup of buttery, salty tea, or perhaps a stay overnight at the Kungri monastery. Villagers in the valley are also generous in providing shelter and food.
Tourist Lodge, Kaza, Himachal Pradesh. Four double rooms and five double-bedded tents are on offer. Parking and catering facilities are available. The lodge is open from May to October only. Tariff: Double room: Rs. 400. Tents: Rs. 250.
Hotel Himalaya, Gulling Village, Spiti, Himachal Pradesh. Tariff: Rs.120.
Narzang Guesthouse, Sagnam Village, Spiti, Himachal Pradesh. Tariff: Rs.50. Ibex Guesthouse, Sagnam Village, Spiti, Himachal Pradesh. Tariff: Rs.35.
Pin Valley is accessible only by road, and the last leg of the journey can only be undertaken on foot. The valley can be reached from Manali via Kaza or from Shimla via Reckong Peo and Sumdo in Kinnaur.
By Road: The nearest town is Gulling at 3,700 m. above sea level. It has the largest population in the region with about 200 people. One route to Pin Valley is via Manali, Rohtang Pass (3,978 m.) and Kumzum La (4,551 m.). This route can be used from mid July to late September or October, depending upon the weather conditions. Another route that is more commonly used is via Shimla, Tapri and Kaza (3,640 m.) that is open between March and December. Kaza is the administrative headquarters of the Spiti sub-division. A bus leaves Kaza at 9 a.m. everyday and transports visitors to Mikkim, from where one can only proceed on foot. A taxi from Kaza to Mikkim could cost about Rs. 700 one-way. A road is currently being constructed from Mikkim right onto Mud. The bus also halts at the Attargo village near the junction of the Spiti and Pin rivers. Attargo is two hours away from Kaza.
On foot: Two main trekking routes are available between mid-July and late September. One option is the route from Kulu in the West, via the Pin Parvati Pass (5,100 m.). An alternative route is from Kinnaur in the South via the Bhaba valley and Tari Khango Pass (4,866 m.). Trekking at these heights is a fascinating experience. Spiti is full of jhullas, like the rope bridge across the Parahio river, a tributary of the Spiti where one crosses a steel wire rope of 12 mm. suspended from abutments on both sides. Using a rope made of yak hair (that is tied around one's legs with special knots) one can crawl across. With your heart in your mouth, you can't help but marvel at the towering snow peaks with glaciers and the river coursing beneath. There is a relatively new bridge from Attargo village to Pin Valley. Local guides, porters and the famous Chhumurti horses are available for hire. Pack mules and donkeys are also available. (Remember to negotiate rates!)
Pin Valley is best known for the Siberian ibex and the rare snow leopard. The Siberian ibex Capra ibex sibrica form the main prey base for the snow leopard. The ibex can often be seen grazing on grassy slopes near nallahs, mainly in the northern area of the park. In the summer, there is sufficient food to forage for the young and females who usually occupy higher pastures near the cliffs. You might even see young fawns drinking at pools. The mating season is in the winter, when males can be spotted locking horns in a show of strength to win mates. The area then resonates with the sound of clashing horns.
Most vegetation at this time lies buried under the snow and the ibex face near starvation. Avalanches also take a toll of large and small animals at this time.
The Pin Valley National Park also harbours several other interesting animals. The Tibetan wolf Canis lupus, the Tibetan gazelle, Royle's pika, red fox, bharal, the Himalayan brown bear and Himalayan blue sheep are some of the species that may be encountered here. The snow-hare, mouse-hare and the Himalayan marmots are far more common. Weasels and lizards also populate the area and the red fox, Vulpes vulpes moves about stealthily. Several animals migrate to and from their higher Himalayan homes every year. They come down in the winter and migrate to higher altitudes in the summer.
Rare birds like the Himalayan Snowcock, Chukor, Snow Partridge, Yellowbilled and Redbilled Choughs, Kestrels and the Tibet Snow Finch flourish in the area. Hill and Snow Pigeons, as well as the Blue Rock Pigeon are found in the area. Water birds and butterflies of astonishing variety are found here. The Bearded Vulture, Golden Eagle, Aquia cryaetos and ravens scour the skies. The wild snow cock, Tetraogallus himalayensis is seen cruising along forest paths fearlessly. The common House Sparrow, surprisingly, keeps these exotic birds company, even at these heights.
The Pin river arises from the glaciers of the Pin-Parvati pass that are located at a height of 4,802 m. and it flows down to meet the Spiti, a large tributary of the Satluj, at the Lingti village, lower in the valley. The entire area forms the core of the park. Besides Pin, the other major rivers are Parahio and Khamengar. There are also 12 perennial streams, and many springs and glaciers. Nevertheless, the area is relatively dry and forms part of the cold desert of India where the annual average precipitation is 177 mm. on an average with heavy snow in winter. Altitudes range from 3,300 m. to 6,632 m. above sea level. The core zone of the park covers an area of 675 sq. km. with a buffer of 1,150 sq. km.
A region of hills, cliffs and mountainous crevices, interspersed with grassy lower slopes, the Pin Valley National Park is remote and harbours many rare species. Going back in geological time, according to evidence from ammonite fossils, the region was once submerged under the Tethys Sea. Quartzite, phylites, schist and gneiss are the most common rocks found here impregnated with granite, shale, limestone and sandstone. Alkaline, calcareous soils characterise terrain where soil salinity is high.
The mountains are snow-covered and largely devoid of vegetation, which is restricted to sheltered strips along channels formed by the melting snow. 400 different species of plants have been recorded in Pin Valley with the vegetation roughly demarcated into three main zones - the Dry Temperate Zone (3,276 m. to 4,200 m.) the Alpine Zone (4,200 m. to 4,800 m.) and the Zone of Perpetual Snow above 4,800 m. Though the park has sparse vegetative cover, the dry Alpine scrub forest and Alpine pastures render it very productive. Dwarf juniper and birch trees are not as abundant anymore though the Salix spp. and Myricaria spp. have regenerated above the lower reaches of the valley. Many medicinal plants have also been documented. These include Ratanjot (khamad), Ephedra, Artemisia and other condiments. The Himalayan cedar is a threatened species of tree. Poplar and willow which were introduced on 43 hectares of land around before the area was declared a national park (no exotics and planted any longer), are found in the buffer zone. In summer flowers decorate the valley with startling colour. Small bushes and grasses are predominant in the high hills, including Rosa sericea, Hipopheae and Lonicera.
The valley is renowned for being Spiti's main stronghold of Nyingmapa Buddhists. There are six monastries in the valley and the largest and most important gompa within the valley is the Kungri gompa, which is 600 years old. It is located three kilometres away from Gulling. It has some 60 resident lamas. The inner walls are adorned with silk paintings of various Buddhist deities. Huge statues also compliment the interiors and there are over 300 volumes of the sacred Tibetan texts, Kenjur and Tenjur preserved carefully in white muslin.
The ancient Tabo and Ki monasteries dating back to 1000 A.D., both built by the famous Tibetan translator, Ringchen Zangpo should be visited. Tabo Gompa has been selected as the place of retirement for the current Dalai Lama, so it is one of the most important monasteries among Tibetan Buddhists. A bus leaves Kaza at 7 a.m. everyday and transports visitors to Tabo located two hours away for Rs. 30. A taxi would cost Rs. 1,000. The complex houses a choskhor (a complex of nine temples, all built between the 10th and 16th century). The main Tsuglhakhang assembly hall within the shrine has 33 Boddhisattva statues and a unique four-sided statue of Sarvarvid Vairocana, one of the five Dhyani Buddhas.
The Ki Gompa is located 14 km. from Kaza and is the oldest and largest gompa in Spiti. It is famous for its collection of ancient texts. It was invaded three times in the 19th century by Ladhakis, Dogras and Sikhs, and affected by an earthquake in 1975. No photography is permitted within the gompa. Chortens are pyramidal structures with shrines dedicated to Guru Padmasambhava, the patron saint of Tibet. Such chortens can be seen in many places.
One can visit the nearby Rupi Bhaba sanctuary across the Shakarog Khango Pass or Tari Khango Pass, or the Great Himalayan National Park, through the Pin Parvati Pass. Lake near Manerang Pass is a preferred tourist spot where one can also sight several water birds. Savour thukpa, the delicious Tibetan noodle soup!
Take a local guide along with you and all required camping equipment - high altitude tents, sleeping bags, and altimeters to show you the height above sea level, binoculars, a camera and ample stocks of packed food. All such equipment can be hired from Manali and Kaza.
A good pair of walking boots is at least as important as a reliable vehicle. The temperatures are freezing and the winds are very fierce so an effective wind cheater, good woollen clothing and warm sleeping bags are survival assets, not luxuries.
Do not attempt the climb unless you're medically fit. Carry a first aid kit as advised by your doctor since many people sometimes feel breathless at very high altitudes. Some of the local lamas also double up as village doctors but get a thorough check up before embarking on a trek through Pin Valley.
Permits are needed for any travel within 40 km. of the Tibetan border. They are not required to travel from Lahaul to Spiti and one can travel as far as Tabo. An inner line permit is necessary, however, for travel between Tabo and Rekong Peo, the capital of Kinnaur. Foreign nationals are normally not allowed into the area. These permits may be obtained from the District Magistrate at Rekong Peo and the sub-divisional magistrate at Kaza. You would be required to submit an application form along with a photocopy of your passport and three passport-sized photographs.
Divisional Forest Officer (Wildlife), Sarah Division, Sarahan Bushehar – 172102.
Himachal Pradesh Tourism Development Corporation Ltd., Ritz Annexe, District Shimla, Himachal Pradesh. Tel.: 0177-252704; Fax: 0177-252206.
Local rulers called Nonos once ruled Spiti. In the 10th century, Spiti was given to one of the three sons of the King of Ladakh, after which the fate of the region became inextricably linked with that of Ladakh. The region became autonomous whenever weak rulers governed Ladakh. However, they continued to pay tribute to Ladakh, Chamba and Kulu even during these periods of autonomy. It was the Ladakh-Tibet war of 1681-83 that was a turning point that granted 'freedom' to Spiti.
In 1846, Spiti was brought under the control of the East India Company and the area now forms part of the Lahaul-Spiti district of Himachal Pradesh. Pin Valley was declared a National Park on January 9, 1987. The influence of Tibetan culture is apparent everywhere. The food they eat, the wandering Buddhist lamas, the flat topped houses, the shrines dedicated to Guru Padmasambhava, the patron saint of Tibet, all give the place a most unique flavour. In this sparsely populated region where hospitality is abundant, the lifestyle austere and a religious life the norm, the legends of the past exist in the present.